One of the earliest in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems was believed to have been inside the airship Hindenburg, which offered passengers a piano, lounge and bar as entertainment. The definition of in-flight entertainment has changed over the decades. From pianos to personal audio players and seat-fitted screens, we’ve come a long way.

The state-of-the-art IFE was on display earlier this year at the Paris Air Show. There, attendees found IFE systems that use iris-tracking technology to pause programs when passengers stop looking at the screen and restart the programs when the passengers’ gaze returns. Other advances at the show enable IFE systems to sync with personal devices to make IFE more user-friendly — and profitable.

Today, of course, most airlines have in-flight entertainment as part of their offerings, based on the nature of the aircraft. While most wide-body aircraft invariably have screens attached to seats, narrow-body aircraft have limited space to accommodate IFE systems. Moreover, the costs involved in fitting narrow-body aircraft with today’s entertainment systems are not always justified by the returns.

Airlines around the world operate in a cost-intensive environment and look for newer avenues to reduce costs, while not compromising on safety and comfort. An average IFE system costs $3-4 million per aircraft, based on the type of aircraft. Include other materials like the in-flight magazines and shopping catalogs that are printed periodically and the costs could go higher. What if there’s a way to pack IFE and printed materials into one device and substantially reduce the costs involved?

Airline regulators are now allowing airlines to provide Wi-Fi services onboard. This opens a whole new gamut of possibilities for in-flight entertainment. Airlines can do away with existing IFE systems and opt for tablets to provide content instead. All content can be centralized and streamed to devices on board. Passengers can choose to use their own devices or airline-provided devices to access the content. Some airlines have already recognized this opportunity and have started to distribute tablets pre-loaded with content as in-flight entertainment. United Airlines has a program that allows passengers to use their personal devices to access United’s entertainment library.

An implementation of this kind will require solid IT management tools to support it as well. A good mobile device management solution will enable devices onboard the aircraft to access content from the server, while network and server performance tools are needed to ensure the content is delivered seamlessly and that there’s no bandwidth clogging anywhere. Now that’s literally taking your IT management to the cloud.

In an industry where there’s a lot of penny-pinching, this exercise will reduce costs substantially for the airlines in the long run. Even fuel costs will drop, thanks to the lighter loads created by device-based IFE. Equipping aircrafts with tablets will cost no more than $300,000 per plane, as opposed to the $3-4 million IFE systems that most airlines buy today. Airlines also can avoid the costs involved in printing an inflight magazine and deliver the same through the tablets. The cost efficiencies continue.

Note: This article was originally published online at IT Briefcase.